UAE doctors agree with WHO findings that aspartame remains safe for consumers, diabetics

Two groups linked to the WHO declare the artificial sweetener, a possible carcinogen, remains safe to consume at already-agreed levels


Angel Tesorero

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In this photo illustration, food products that contain the artificial sweetener aspartame are displayed in New York City. — AFP
In this photo illustration, food products that contain the artificial sweetener aspartame are displayed in New York City. — AFP

Published: Sat 15 Jul 2023, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Thu 20 Jul 2023, 1:35 PM

UAE doctors are satisfied with the most recent finding by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that the artificial sweetener, aspartame – though a possible carcinogen – remains safe to consume at already-agreed levels, particularly for those who are diabetics.

A carcinogen is a substance, organism or agent capable of causing cancer. Aspartame, discovered in 1965 by American chemist James Schlatter, is a popular artificial sweetener that is about 200 times sweeter than regular table sugar. It is used in zero-calorie or diet sodas, as well as an additive in chewing gum and breakfast cereals.

On Friday, two groups linked to WHO declared aspartame remains safe to consume at already-agreed levels. Earlier, the International Agency for Research on Cancer based in Lyon, France, said aspartame was a "possible carcinogen” but there was limited evidence that proved the substance can cause cancer. The WHO and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Joint Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), meanwhile, said there was no convincing evidence of harm caused by aspartame. They recommended that people keep their consumption levels of aspartame below 40mg/kg a day.

"Our results do not indicate that occasional consumption could pose a risk to most consumers," said Francesco Branca, WHO's head of nutrition. He said the WHO is not urging companies to remove aspartame from their products entirely, but is instead calling for moderation from manufacturers and consumers.

What UAE doctors say

Doctors in the UAE noted the WHO conclusion confirms that aspartame is safe. Dr Idrees Mubarik, specialist endocrinologist at Saudi German Hospital Dubai, told Khaleej Times: “Aspartame is a non-nutritive artificial sweetener that is around 200 times sweeter than sugar. That means a very small amount is needed to give foods and beverages a sweet flavour. Since it is non-nutritive, it obviously isn't associated with any abnormal increase in blood glucose unlike common table sugar.

Dr Idrees Mubarik.
Dr Idrees Mubarik.

“Approved daily intake for aspartame is 40mg/kg body weight per day, which is roughly equal to 75 servings, which obviously is way more than one takes in a day,” he added.

Dr Mubarik also noted that the WHO report clearly mentioned that people with pre-existing diabetes can continue to use aspartame. “We can safely conclude that diabetic patients can continue to use aspartame as a substitute for sugar.”

Diabetes is a highly prevalent global and regional health concern. In the UAE, around 30 per cent of the population are classified as diabetic or pre-diabetic according to health authorities. A report issued by the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) predicts that 1.17 million of the total population between ages 20 and 79 years old could have diabetes by 2030.


Consume in moderation

Dr Sarla Kumari, specialist physician diabetologist at Canadian Specialist Hospital Dubai, highlighted: “Aspartame is one of the most exhaustively studied ingredients in the human food supply, with more than 200 studies supporting its safety. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved its use in dry foods in 1981, in carbonated beverages in 1983 and as a general-purpose sweetener in 1996.”

Dr Sarla Kumari.
Dr Sarla Kumari.

Dr Kumari added: “For some people with diabetes who are accustomed to sweetened food, artificial sweeteners – containing few or no calories – may be an acceptable substitute for nutritive sweeteners when consumed in moderation.”

“Aspartame can be used in diabetic patients as a safe alternative to glucose. The American Cancer Society does not determine aspartame as a cancer risk agent. The European Food Safety Authority recommends a dose of less than 40mg/kg per day as safe for long term use,” added Dr Remesan, specialist internal medicine at NMC Specialty Hospital, Al Ain.

Dr Remesan.
Dr Remesan.

Drink water instead

Dr Ahlam Bani Salameh, specialist endocrinologist at Prime Medical Center, meanwhile, does not prescribe artificial sweeteners for her patients, noting that “there are some data that say artificial sweeteners increase insulin resistance and some data indicate carcinogenic issues".

“Some research on long-term, daily use of artificial sweeteners suggests a link to a higher risk of stroke, heart disease and death overall. But what other things people do, or healthy habits that people don't do may also be the cause of the higher risk,” she added.

Dr Ahlam Bani Salameh.
Dr Ahlam Bani Salameh.

Like other doctors, Dr Salameh, noted: “If people are faced with the decision whether to take fizzy drinks with artificial sweeteners or with regular table sugar, a third option should be considered. And that is to drink water instead.”

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